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Volume 3, Number 1, Oct 2002

Community Justice in the Campus Setting

by David Karp, Beau Breslin and Pat Oles
Skidmore College

A Community Justice Approach to Campus Discipline

Even at our wealthy, liberal arts college located in a safe, small town, the campus judicial roster looks much as it would at any other college or university across the nation: Johnny was caught with a bag of cocaine, Jerry kicked in a plate glass door, Jill submitted a paper that she didn't write, Jenny sold her Ritalin to another student who needed it to pull an "all-nighter," Jimmy drove his friends and his SUV into a tree after bar-hopping with a fake ID (manufactured on campus by a computer-savvy student entrepreneur-but we haven't caught him or her yet). Of course, there are worse crimes committed on the college campus-robberies, rape, and assault are not uncommon (Fisher et al., 1998). But here, we focus on a more general problem associated with campus culture-violations of the criminal code and/or campus policy that are normative. That is, while some students are angered by such violations, most respond with either a casual shrug or a tacit endorsement of the behavior. We'll refer to this tension between norms and campus policy as cultural dissensus.

The Disciplinary Problem

The problem of student misconduct has several inter-related dimensions. First, students arriving on campus as freshmen experience a sudden, dramatic loss of supervision. Many of these students have not developed strong internal controls to regulate their behavior. This is especially true for students coming from very authoritative homes, where self-regulation was not cultivated (Colvin, 2000). For students, whose behavior has been largely dependent on external controls, the liberated college environment may come as quite a shock.

Second, arriving students, anxious to make friends and establish a sense of belonging, are strongly pressured by peers to "party" with alcohol and other drugs. Prior research suggests that students overestimate the actual degree of alcohol and drug use by other students, and seek to conform to the perceived norm (Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986). Research also shows that drug and alcohol use, and binge drinking in particular, is correlated with reduced academic performance. Even students who show moderation are affected by property damage and unwanted sexual advances (Wechsler et al., 1994).

Third, student culture is at odds with mainstream society and legal codes with regard to drug use and underage alcohol consumption. Recent data reveal that 85% of college students had consumed alcohol in the year prior to data collection, and 33% had smoked marijuana. It should be noted that 60% of the survey sample was under age 21. (Core Institute, 2001). College alcohol and drug policies, which must obviously comply with the criminal law, are accorded scant legitimacy among students. This dissensus creates an adversarial relationship between students and administration (and campus safety officers). At our campus, faculty members are caught in the middle and tend to remain awkwardly neutral about student extra-curricular conduct. Campus life is strangely bifurcated. Students describe our professors as their primary non-peer role models, yet the social control faculty exert in the academic sphere does not extend to the students' residential lives. In that realm, students largely fend for themselves.

Fourth, colleges typically rely on coercive techniques to gain compliance with college policies and the criminal law because they have had little alternative. Since college administrations cannot rely on student internal controls, and since dissensus precludes them from appealing to universal moral codes, administrators are forced to increase surveillance and punitive sanctions. This creates a conundrum because higher educational institutions in the United States often operate as cloistered liberal polities. While campuses generally repudiate authoritarian social control, they increasingly rely upon the techniques of the police state to enforce campus policies. Yet campus safety departments are not adequately staffed to accomplish coercive control, municipal police are not invited on campus, students remain largely free to consume drugs and alcohol at will, and an unlucky few are subject to increasingly harsh penalties when they are caught. Failing to achieve any deterrent effect, the common reaction is that a few students are unfairly singled out.

Fifth, because a quarter of the student body is new each year, disciplinary approaches must be educational and ongoing. Smith and Dickey (1999) describe a Milwaukee neighborhood street corner where the drug trade thrives. In a three-month period in 1996, 94 drug arrests were made, and most were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. Nevertheless, the drug trade continued unabated. The removal of one dealer merely created the opportunity for the next to stake his claim on the corner. Just as Milwaukee police officers could not arrest their way out of the drug problem, colleges cannot effectively respond to student disciplinary problems (including the drug trade), through apprehension and removal. The continual student population turnover guarantees that individual-level solutions cannot resolve community-level problems. Instead, solutions must continuously strive to socialize students to be community members, able to consider the consequences of their behavior on the welfare of the community (DeJong et al., 1998).

The approach described here offers a communitarian alternative to liberal avoidance and conservative crackdowns. It is an approach that focuses on moral education by integrating academic learning, student participation in the campus judicial process, and restorative justice principles. The approach is both a response to individual misbehavior and campus dissensus.

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Page last updated 11/27/2005

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